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Finding Climate Solutions in the Land

As the alarming realities of climate change continue to come into focus, there is a renewed urgency for solutions that can ultimately save our planet. The scientific and environmental communities agree that no one answer will “solve” the climate change crisis — rather solutions will be found across a spectrum of sectors from energy to agriculture. With forests and other land sequestering more than 10 percent of US carbon emissions each year, conservation organizations clearly have an important role to play.

From coastal barrier islands to key undeveloped flood plains and wetlands, land has proven to be highly effective in absorbing water and defending nearby infrastructure. Increasingly, attention is turning to land conservation as a “natural solution;” recognizing the role land plays in storing or sequestering carbon while also providing a host of other benefits.

“This growing attention on land as a solution has energized the land conservation community,” says Kim Elliman, president and CEO of the Open Space Institute. “While we have long valued our work for recreation, clean water, and wildlife habitat, the opportunity to take on climate change through strategic land protection is groundbreaking for our conservation colleagues and OSI.”

And OSI’s conservation work is having an impact. In 2018 alone, the total tons of carbon in the land OSI protected stores the equivalent amount of carbon from burning almost 16 billion pounds of coal for a single year. OSI’s director of research Abigail Weinberg explains that, not surprisingly, forests provide a key sequestration value, and that mature, mixed-species forests provide the greatest carbon benefits. “Often these lands would be targeted for heavy cuts by commercial interests. More carbon is retained in the soil and trees when it is permanently conserved and managed with light harvests or with long rotations.”

Here in the US, the contribution of land-based sequestration could achieve 21 percent of the Paris Accord goals. Notably, sequestration is highest in eastern US forests, where OSI focuses its work. According to the 2013 Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) of the USDA Forest Service, the Eastern US contained 65 percent of the total carbon sequestered in forests — 33 percent in the South and 32 percent in the Northern US Forest. Carbon sequestration, according to Weinberg, has grown in the East partly because of reforestation of agricultural lands. In the Western US, she notes, emissions from forest fires are a growing source of carbon emissions, which underscores the importance of Eastern forests in capturing carbon.

In addition to forests, Weinberg also points to established wetlands, marshland, and grasslands, and conservation practices on agricultural lands as highly productive for increasing carbon storage. There is still much to learn about how to apply emerging knowledge to land protection.

“All of this data is critical as we best deploy land conservation to fight climate change,” says Elliman. “Ultimately, land conservation matters — not only for those who will enjoy and rely on protected land today, but for all of us determined to help heal the planet for the long run.”

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